Walter Berkeyheiser

News | 2 months ago

LVAD Saves Veteran’s Heart, Helping Him Return to Active Lifestyle

An artificial heart pump means newfound freedom for veteran Walter Berkeyheiser. Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist heart experts provide the care and support he needs while he waits for a transplant.

Walter Berkeyheiser, a 52-year-old resident of Denton, North Carolina, loves riding motorcycles and four-wheelers. He enjoys spending time outdoors and gardening. Walter retired after 24 years in the Marine Corps. He frequently volunteers to help homeless veterans and supports charity fundraisers that benefit veterans.

A few years ago, Walter was driving down Highway 64 around 10 a.m. He felt lightheaded, so he pulled over on the side of the road, which only had a 4-inch berm. As he waited until his car approached a driveway, he blacked out and rolled his truck down the side of the road.

Walter woke up right away and was fortunate enough to leave the accident scene without a scratch. An ambulance came and took him to the local hospital, where his care team put him on an EKG machine. His doctor attributed the event to exhaustion and possibly hunger. He was released that evening.

A few months later, Walter was diagnosed with high blood pressure and put on medication to control it. One of the side effects of the medication is severe headaches, which he has learned to cope with.

A year after his first accident, Walter blacked out while he was driving and rolled his vehicle down a ditch. When he woke up, he realized he was upside down in his vehicle. An emergency crew got him out and took him to the hospital for more testing.

Hospital staff found two blockages in his heart. They put in two stents to keep the arteries open. He also had a blockage in his left anterior descending artery, which is also known as the widow-maker artery. They decided to monitor the widow-maker artery for the time being.

In December 2022, Walter felt awful and went home from work. He asked his neighbor to take him to the emergency department. The staff discovered Walter was in the middle of a heart attack. Within 10 minutes of his arrival, they sent him to Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist, where he was evaluated by Dr. Bart Imielski,cardiothoracic surgeon and professor of surgical sciences at Wake Forest Baptist.

Imielski identified the cause of Walter’s blackouts as a chronic blood flow issue from advanced coronary artery disease. Walter’s heart was only functioning at 15%, making him a poor candidate for bypass surgery.

Temporary heart support

Imielski suggested an Impella® heart pump, which allows the heart to rest by providing temporary pumping support. Wake Forest Baptist recently installed its 100th Impella, marking a significant milestone in its Advanced Heart Failure and Transplant Program. A collaboration between heart failure cardiologists and surgeons, this program has the best heart transplant outcomes in North Carolina.

“Our program is among the country’s top 25% in terms of Impella utilization,” Imielski explains. “The device helps support patients with low cardiac output, allowing us to stabilize patients in heart failure and help them get stronger in preparation for heart surgery or a left ventricular assistance device (LVAD).”

Since Walter had a difficult early course of illness, he required extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO)therapy. This treatment involves pumping the patient’s blood through an artificial circuit. The immediate danger to his life finally stabilized.

Walter was so critically ill that the Impella and ECMO therapy were used to save his life, giving his organs time to recover and his body time to regain strength before undergoing further treatment. After weeks of applying these therapies, Walter was still in heart failure.

Artificial heart pump

Imielski recommended an LVAD, which acts like a water pump, to support Walter’s heart while he waits for a transplant. It attaches to both ends of the heart and pumps blood continuously. It also tracks Walter’s heart activity for Imielski to review each month.

On the side of the pump, there’s a wire that comes out through an area near Walter’s stomach and connects to an external controller, which is about the size of a large TV remote control. Walter wears a harness with a battery pack to power the device. The pack weighs about 8 pounds and lasts 6 ½ to 8 hours after a full charge. At bedtime, Walter connects the LVAD to a 30-foot cord that attaches to an external battery pack.
Before showering, Walter must ensure that all wire connections are watertight to prevent damage. Walter is unable to go swimming or soak in a bathtub or hot tub with the LVAD.

Exceptional care and encouragement

Walter’s care team at Wake Forest Baptist provided outstanding care 24/7.

“They went above and beyond for me and always made me feel like I was part of their family,” says Walter. “I always felt at ease asking questions about my care and treatment.”

Walter also appreciated the positivity of his care team, which helped him fight depression during his recovery.

“They were constantly encouraging me to stay active, which helped me to get stronger,” Walter says. “They were always joking around and had constant smiles on their faces, which made a difference for me.”

Walter’s nursing team was attentive, even with the small things. When his back was itchy, his nurse scratched his back for him. The next day, the nurse brought Walter a back scratcher.

Learning and supporting others

It has taken Walter several months to recover and regain his strength. But now he feels great and can enjoy many of his favorite activities while he waits for a transplant. Thanks to the LVAD, he’s thrilled to have the newfound freedom of being able to walk, drive and ride his motorcycle.

Walter is still learning how to use and test the LVAD. He has a daily checklist to verify its functionality. If he notices numbers that seem unusual, he contacts Imielski’s office and heads to the hospital.

Walter is happy to work with the LVAD coordinators at Wake Forest Baptist to help support patients considering this unique heart pump.

“I talk to them about my experience and tell them about the extra gear they will have to carry,” Walter says. “But I also explain how much better I feel because my blood is pumping properly. I try to be positive and encouraging while being realistic about the challenges.”


Learn more about the Advanced Heart Failure and Transplant Program at Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist.